There is a lot of discussions going on about what shakuhachi is or is not, should be or shouldn’t be: is it a meditation instrument? is it a music instrument? or both? should we or shouldn’t we pay attention to the musical result when we play it?
The first thing I would like to say about it is that we are all different people, so it looks normal to me that we have each a different approach of the shakuhachi, different goals, different needs, and that we like different things in it. I think that the shakuhachi is a great instrument to teach us to be non-judgemental. But I read and hear a lot of judgements here and there, about what shakuhachi is and is not, and that surprises me. I think we can express what we like in playing and listening to shakuhachi without considering that our way is the only way. In my teaching, I try to help my students to find their own way, not to imitate me or Fukuda Teruhisa. Our school and repertoire is wide enough to provide different aspects of the music for shakuhachi, but not all aspects. And the most important to me is that my students play in alignment with themselves, and take lessons from me only if they find what they like in our school.
So music or meditation?
Shakuhachi is a music instrument, so I would answer: of course music. But it is also a meditation tool, and there is for me no contradiction here. Let me explain my view.
If you want to meditate on your breath, you don’t need to play shakuhachi. There are lots of meditation techniques based on the breath, just pick one you like! If you choose to play shakuhachi, most of the time, it is for its sound. You want to produce this sound, to listen to it, to share it with others, in other words, to play music.
What makes shakuhachi very special is its music, the traditional honkyoku. It is a special kind of music without a fixed rhythm, the rhythm being determined by the length of the breath. So it can variate a lot whether you are a beginner or a master! The silence is very important, and the in-breath is as important as the out-breath. Honkyoku is based on long tones and repetitions, like a prayer. Most of the pieces have a spiritual (Buddhist) meaning, or is related to nature (in which there is spirituality too).
The old traditional repertoire is limited and each school has made its own selection, adding its own interpretation, names and pieces. There is a huge difference between the different schools and styles, as there can be a huge difference in accents, dialects, use of words, etc., inside one country. Kurahashi Yodo II made me aware of it when he taught us honkyoku originated from different regions of Japan (and Japan is a big country!), as if they were written in different dialects. It makes perfectly sense to me, as I consider music as a langage, so why not different dialects and accents for the same piece? And why should we consider one being better, superior, more authentic, than the others? That we like one better is another story.
One other characteristic is that there are no beginner pieces, as there are in Western music. The first honkyoku my students learn with me is Kyorei, which is at the same time the most easy and the most difficult piece to play. The most easy technically, the most difficult to perform properly in public because it reflects your state of mind like a mirror and you need to be absolutely calm and confident to be at ease to play it. Which also means that you fully accept that it can go “wrong” or differently than what you practiced at home and that it is also OK. We are humans, we are not perfect. Accepting imperfection is part of playing shakuhachi.
“Meditation was originally created to overcome suffering, find a deeper meaning in life, and connect to a higher reality. […] Meditation is an exercise for your mind. This exercise takes different shapes depending on the style of meditation that you are practicing but, in general, it involves relaxation, stillness, looking inside, awareness and focus. ”
Giovanni Dientsmann (Practical Meditation)
Meditating with shakuhachi is exercising your mind to focus on your breathing, your blowing, your sound. Zen-Buddhism meditation practice uses concentration, observation and pure awareness. Whether you play one tone like Ro-buki or an entire honkyoku, you try to keep your mind busy with one thing: what you are doing in the present moment. Your breath is the bridge between your mind and your body. Your body (and your shakuhachi) is always in the present moment, whereas your mind can be anywhere in time and space. When you meditate, you try to stay in the present moment and observe what your mind is doing, including noticing that it is wandering. Playing shakuhachi helps you to stay focused on your breath and body and stay in the present moment. You don’t need a musical piece to meditate, and actually, you don’t need specifically a shakuhachi: you should be able to do it with any (wind) music instrument.
The “plus” of the shakuhachi is its traditional music, which allows you to meditate on a specific virtue like compassion, offering, gratitude, etc. And to share your practice with the music.
When I play shakuhachi, I feel connected to the world. I play Tamuke for people who passed away whether I know them or not, wherever the people who loved them live, I play specific healing and compassionate pieces for dear ones wherever they live and I feel connected to them, I blow peace and compassion for the people with dementia, etc. And I dedicate a moment to blow for peace in the world. This is my own spiritual way. I don’t ask anybody to imitate me, and I am happy to share my meditation practice with some students during the Fuki-awase sessions I organise from time to time.
Playing a honkyoku doesn’t mean you are meditating. As well as you don’t need to play a honkyoku to meditate while playing shakuhachi. Playing honkyoku is a type of meditation you can use to meditate. With a lot of practice – meditation practice AND musical practice of the piece – it can actually become one same thing. This is my experience and my quest as well.
When you know the piece well enough to be free from notation, technics and self-judgement, playing an entire honkyoku becomes like playing one single tone.
But here is my point: practicing meditation is not practicing shakuhachi. You need both!
In order to play a honkyoku properly, you need to master the piece, meaning all the technical issues of it (notes, sound, intonation), the phrases, the inner rhythm, the silence. This is music. And the style of honkyoku you like is yours to decide.
Since the end of the XIXe century, the shakuhachi making has improved a lot to enable the instrument to meet the needs of playing with other instruments. The shakuhachi is a fantastic instrument and it is normal people want to explore its potential. But it is up to you to choose the path of modernity or not. Everybody is different! Enjoy the possibilities you have and choose what is good for you. And please don’t judge negatively others’ choices being different than yours.
Independently of the type of shakuhachi and path you choose, in order to play shakuhachi properly, you need to practice it. Blowing without taking into consideration the pitch, fingerings, intonation, rhythm, is not practicing. It is also not playing honkyoku.
This is a tricky part. What is tradition? There is a very good book about it, in French: “Le Shakuhachi Japonais, une tradition réinventée”, par Bruno Deschênes – éditions L’Harmattan. I hope it will be translated into English.
So I’m not going to address this subject. There are just two things I want to write here:
- Spiritually in the music is not only the privilege of old or traditional music. There is traditional music without spirituality as well as modern and contemporary music with spirituality. When I was a flute player, I loved playing the solo pieces by the French composer André Jolivet (XXe century), especially the Ascèses. There is an authentic spirituality quest in these pieces. Another example is the music of Olivier Messiaen (XXe century). Or the Requiem of Karl Jenkins, with shakuhachi. And there are many more. In our Hijirikai school (which name refers to holy priests), the compositions of Fukuda Teruhisa are written as modern honkyoku, inspired by the spirituality of the Komuso monks.
- The shakuhachi is a real instrument, like a violin or a piano, with a traditional way to play it, which should be respected. From my point of view, every music instrument, even the most simple-looking one, deserves respect (respect also from the maker, but this is another subject). What do I mean here? I mean: learn to play it properly, with the right technics. Even if, especially if, you already play another music instrument. Shakuhachi needs to be understood, it deserves time, respect and humility. It is not by chance that it was designed to be a spiritual instrument. The shakuhachi is a mirror of yourself: what you give to him, it gives it to you back. Its traditional music gives you the opportunity not only to train your breathing and your mind but also to discover and understand yourself better, if you listen carefully to it and are open to hear what it is telling you about yourself.
As this Zen-Buddhist saying says:
“The shakuhachi plays you just as much as you play it.”
The shakuhachi is a music instrument you can use for meditation and for playing music, all kinds of music. As well as Zen-Buddhism meditation is one type of meditation you can choose among many others. The choice you make is yours and yours only. Sometimes, there can be some confusion existing between the traditional Zen-repertoire and what meditation is, I hope this post helps to clarify things.
Meditation and playing music can become one with a long and dedicated practice. My personal Zen-quest is playing each honkyoku as if I was playing one single long tone.
Enjoy your practice and be kind and compassionate with yourself, your shakuhachi will reward you!